AT&T CEO John Stankey "Not Optimistic" About Theaters Recovering By 2021

What does the future of theaters look like? That has been one of the resounding questions since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shuttered cinemas around the globe, with major markets in the U.S. still closed down amid surging cases across the country. According to AT&T CEO John Stankey, it's not looking great. The chief of the WarnerMedia parent company spoke about the future of movie exhibitors in an investor conference call, painting a pretty grim picture for movie theaters through at least early 2021.

Deadline reports that Stankey spoke at length about the future of movie theaters in an investor conference call following the third-quarter earnings report on Wednesday. While Stankey was optimistic about the future of film and TV productions, which are up and running with about 130 underway since last week, he was less so about movie exhibition.

"That's still one of the things we don't have great visibility on," Stankey said. "I can't tell you that we walked away from the Tenet experience saying it was a home run."

Tenet was primed to be the savior of theaters when it was released on Labor Day weekend, with Warner Bros. and many movie theater chains, as well as small exhibitors, eyeing the Christopher Nolan action flick as the major tentpole that could jumpstart their flagging ticket sales. But needless to say, it did not. While Tenet did well overseas, it took in middling box office returns domestically, especially with key markets in Los Angeles and New York City remaining closed. But Stankey expressed no regrets about Warner Bros.' release plan for Tenet, saying "I'm happy we did it. I think the team was incredibly creative. I think we learned a few things about what we can do. I think if theatres were open nation-wide, if California and New York were open, we'd have some latitude... So maybe as we get to a place where there is a little more consistent footprint we can do some more."

Now Stankey is looking at the holiday season as the "next big checkpoint to see if we can move some content back into theatrical distribution" but that seems like another unlikely target considering the fall/winter movie release slate is almost completely emptied and COVID-19 cases are expected to surge again.

But Stankey confirmed AT&T's commitment to theatrical, even as major Hollywood studios won't go as far as to buy out theater chains to prevent them from going under (a common practice under Classic Hollywood, which came about as a result of — you guessed it — another pandemic). Stankey said that he doesn't expect theaters to recover by early 2021, at least:

"We're still committed to put some of the content that we think is most important into the theatrical channel. We're expecting this to be incredibly choppy moving into next year... We are not optimistic... not expecting a huge recovery in theatrical moving into the early part of next year."

WarnerMedia is exploring other options, labeled Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, but Stankey didn't go into detail. "As we move forward and see, we will call the cards," he said.